“Nearly half of British managers would give up a week’s annual leave for a better office.”
That’s just one of the illuminating findings from the 2005 report by the Chartered Institute of Building Engineers, Buildings and Spaces:Why Design Matters, which looked at how employees can thrive in their offices. The finding from managers shows just how important an agile work environment is in the modern age – especially as most of us spend a third of our lives in the office.
This might explain why more offices in the UK and US are tearing down cubicle farms and replacing them with agile work environments. Designed in the 1960s by Robert Propst, the work cubicle was envisioned as an “action office” with partitions for privacy. Somewhere along the way, this well-meaning idea evolved into a cheap, modular workplace solution which Propst himself described as “monolithic insanity.”
Cubicle farms aren’t extinct yet, but companies around the world are catching on to the fact that an agile work environment can improve collaboration, innovation and engagement. A prime example of this shifting trend is the global workspace network WeWork, which is now the 7th most valuable private start-up in the world.
A large part of their success is the focus on the needs of a younger generation. They’re creating characterful, comfortable and smart workspaces, making it clear to employers that smart office design can make all the difference when it comes to recruiting, retaining, and re-energising employees.
The advantages of an agile work environment
Also known as the digital or responsive office, an agile workspace uses technology to enable employees to work in a flexible and agile manner. This can range from online training to collaborative platforms that allow people to work on the same project around the world. The smart office even removes the need for a physical office space, opening up possibilities for remote working and interconnected global offices.
Smart doesn’t just mean work-based tech. Last year, British Land surveyed over 1,000 London office workers and found that the wish-list of smart features was largely comfort-based. Employees wanted self-adjusting lighting and blinds, the ability to control the heat and light of their individual work station, natural daylight-mimicking lighting and systems that adjust automatically depending on the light, weather and room occupancy.
The serious business of fun
As the research suggests, we are preoccupied by our physical environment. A modern office space that gives employees the freedom to work in a way that suits them is a big selling point for your recruitment and retention strategy.
Google is the best-known example. The company’s innovative workspaces are sold to potential candidates as part of the package. Rooftop allotments, putting greens, climbing walls, chill-out pods… the imagination and creativity behind these ideas is inspiring to say the least. Each location is unique, but all have the signature emphasis of collaboration, comfort, socialisation and fun. Workspace Design and Build says we can all learn from this “charismatic” culture by striving for “casual collisions”. After all, colleagues that climb walls and drink coffee together are more likely to form productive teams.
Regardless of size or income, any company can adopt at least one of Google’s design principles: “never be more than 10 feet from food”. A cookie jar makes it easier for colleagues to meet in a relaxed environment.
Finding the middle way
Before you go the full Google, pause a moment. An agile work environment isn’t about turning your office into an oversized playground, it’s about creating space that can be adapted to a variety of different needs.
Open-plan offices can kill productivity, so it’s important to have places where employees can work quietly and focus on specific tasks. Equally, you want to make sure there are areas of your office that allow people to socialise and interact in a more casual way. This can improve collaboration and workplace relationships.
Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ has a huge open plan space that houses 2,800 employees (including Mark Zuckerberg himself). There are no dividers anywhere, which may seem like a daunting prospect for many of us. However, breakout space is provided: there are plenty of small meeting rooms as well as a nine-acre rooftop garden, offering a quiet escape when needed.
Making the move
Harvard Business Review recommends the following steps before refreshing an office layout: communicate clearly, be enthusiastic, and allow room for adapting the space to fit different people’s needs.
The following tips can help you successfully turn your office into an agile work environment:
Don’t assume that one size fits all – Give people the option to float between different areas, like “focus” zones for individual working, “connect” zones for collaborating, and “vitality” zones for relaxing. The design of a smart office need to be based on real data in order to support a range of activities and maximise productivity.
Survey your employees ahead of the redesign – You could ask people to list three things that help them work, and three things that make them less productive. You might be surprised by their responses – don’t assume you know what works best for them. Like the British Land respondents, you might find they want to focus on the physical environment, or perhaps they’d prefer a more considered approach around collaborative work areas.
Brainstorm design ideas with different teams – Get individual teams on board with focus groups and brainstorming sessions. Give people a chance envisage and imagine their new space.
An agile work environment is the perfect fusion of technology and good design. It gives employees more control over how they work, where they work, and who they work with, all of which positively influence the employee experience. Done right, employees will feel appreciated and valued – and above all, they’ll respect you for thinking about their needs and how to improve their lives at work.